Chinese folk religion is a large and complex spiritual system, which can be roughly divided into nine categories: worship of immortals, worship of the Buddha and associated divinities, worship of underworld spirits, worship of daily life deities, worship of patron deities of various trades, worship of marriage and fertility gods, worship of historical figures, worship of natural animals, and worship of unusual spirits and ghosts. Each category and its representative deities evolved over time from the accumulation of life experiences. One can learn a great deal about traditional Chinese culture from them. It is quite interesting.
The concept of supernatural beings or gods can be traced back to ancient times. In the eyes of the common people, supernatural beings are infinitely resourceful and can help the weak and comfort the poor, save those in need, and soothe the distressed. The representative divinities in this category are the Jade Emperor, the Eight Immortals, and the Lord of the Earth.
Buddhist worship basically refers to Buddhist folk worship. Buddhists believe that the good or bad done in a former life determines whether a person is poor or rich, obscure or eminent in this lifetime, and the good and evil behavior of this life will inevitably lead to good or ill fortune in the next life. In order to prepare for the next life, one must do good deeds and practice Buddhism. The representative deities are Shakyamuni, Guanyin (the goddess of mercy), the Arhats (Buddhists who have reached enlightenment), and Ji Gong (1148–1209, the divine monk of the Southern Song dynasty).
The netherworld may sound horrible, but the concept is welcomed by the Chinese. The ruling upper class visualized hell with some familiar characters, including a king (Yama), city gods, and four judges who keep accounts of every living person’s merits and wrongdoings so as to determine their life span; these divinities serve to warn and instruct people. Among the lower levels of society, even the ordinary people believe that the judges of the netherworld and hell exist; they hope that the judges of the netherworld will help them and send evildoers to hell. The representative deities are the King of Hell, city gods, and the judges of the netherworld.
The Chinese approach the worship of their gods with a practical attitude; the spirits, ghosts, immortals, and Buddhist divinities who are worshiped are mostly associated with people’s daily life. To meet psychological and practical needs and wants—such as seeking blessings and avoiding disasters; pursuing good fortune and evading bad fortune; being grateful and repaying kindness—people created one god after another for their own needs. The representative gods are the god of fire, the god of water wells, the god of doors, the god of the lavatory, and the god of wealth.
In ancient times, many industries had their own patron gods. The workers wished for their work to go smoothly, their business to flourish, and for their life to be blissful. The Chinese have a tradition of respecting their teachers and revering their ancestors; therefore, people in various trades sought to discover the founders of their trades. They treated the founder as a god and worshiped him. The representative gods are Lu Ban (a legendary master carpenter from the Spring and Autumn period), Huang Daopo (the reputed inventor of spinning cotton), Shennong (the Divine Husbandman), and the kitchen god.
Traditional Chinese culture attaches great importance to “family”—it values marriage and having children—thus people created many relevant gods and idols. The representative deities are the god of the moon (who unites men and women in marriage), the twin genii He-He (legendary gods of harmonious union), the Cowherd and Weaver Girl, and the Child-Bringing Goddess Guanyin.
In the long river of Chinese history, many great men have emerged. Respecting and showing gratitude to these sages and virtuous men, people of later generations deified them – they built temples and offered sacrifices to them. Representative of these apotheosized figures are Confucius (551–479 BCE), Qu Yuan (ca. 340–278 BCE), and Guan gong (a reverent term of address for Guan Yu, 160–219).
The worship of animals is the most primitive type of worship. Early humans learned through personal experience that nature affected their lives. Early people deified and worshiped natural things and forces that were involved for survival. Animal worship was an outcome of the hunting age. Early humans believed that animals were like humans with minds and souls. Furthermore, early humans often felt helpless in front of the fearsome animals and worshipped them. The representative natural divinities are the mountain gods, the god of the sea, foxes, dragons, and phoenixes.
In China, the belief in ghosts and superstitions has had considerable influence among the people. People feel that they are unable to overcome the scourge of ghosts, so they turn to the gods for help. The door god, therefore, was created out of necessity. Door gods are duty bound to catch ghosts, ward off evil spirits, and quell demons and devils. The representative gods are Black Wuchang ghost and White Wuchang ghost, Ox-Head and Horse-Face (two guardians of the underworld), Yaksa (an evil spirit), Zhong Kui (vanquisher of ghosts and evil beings), Meng Po (Lady of Forgetfulness), and the god of plagues.